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Summer Institute Reflection

Cathy Shufro with fellow summer institute students

A writer confronts exam anxiety—with a little help from friends.


I should be concentrating on my epidemiology homework, question 12a: “Calculate the difference in outcome incidence between the placebo and vaccine groups.”

In fact, I’m listening to a fellow Summer Institute student describe how her friend delivered a baby on an airplane.

I keep listening as she talks about having taught newborn resuscitation to Swazi midwives. The midwives were supposed to train others. But when she returned to Swaziland, most of them couldn’t be found. Maybe they’d left for better jobs, she says. Another student recounts how the chief of health surveillance for an entire Latin American nation jumped ship to work for an NGO.

Conversations like these both distract me from my homework and show me its value. In class, on the shuttle bus, in the snack bar, I find myself with people from Mozambique and Mongolia, Brazil and Baltimore, all talking public health.

One day at lunch, two students are discussing chi-square tests. Chi-square tests scare me: I haven’t studied math in decades. I’m attending this Summer Institute at the Bloomberg School because I write about global health and want to understand the principles that underlie research.

I panic as I study for the midterm: Why can’t I remember how to adjust for age so I can compare standardized populations? Two doctors from Denmark, Karen and Ida, show me what to do. And then we three learn a formula for specificity from Lionel, a biologist from Nicaragua. Davide, an Italian geriatrician, assures me I’ll do fine on the midterm—and I do.

When these three weeks are over, we’ll all scatter. The other students will return to their work on tuberculosis and maternal survival, obesity and trauma, and I will go back to writing about public health. But when I think about what’s at stake, I will see their faces. —by Cathy Shufro, a freelance writer from Woodbridge, Connecticut

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